BOTKINS, Ohio ? As Marilyn Maurer pulled
weeds from her flower garden last week, her brother was planting soybeans in an adjacent
field on her 77-acre Shelby County farm. The only sound for miles around was the faint hum
of his green-and-yellow John Deere tractor.
By October, Maurer could be picking
dollar bills ? 1.9 million of them, to be exact ? from a land deal designed by Botkins
officials to lure gamblers to God?s country. Her farm near I-75 and those of her neighbors
have been chosen by out-of-state American Indian casino operators seeking greener pastures
to develop a $550 million entertainment resort.
For more than a year, Ohio lawmakers
have debated a proposal to allow 2,000 electronic-slot machines at each of the state?s
seven horse-race tracks. The issue, fueled by legislators trying to bolster a sagging
state budget, now appears headed for the Nov. 4 ballot.
But a key side effect barely has been
mentioned: Allowing the slots would open the door to Indian casinos in Ohio for the first
time. Permitting the video slots would make Ohio a Class III gambling state under a 1988
federal law, which means the state would have to allow Indian-owned, Las Vegas-style
casinos as well.
Huge dollars are at stake. Nationally,
Indian gambling operations will rake in a projected $15 billion this year ? double the
take just six years ago. A Time magazine investigation last year estimated the Indian
casinos reaped a 40 percent profit, putting their total haul among the top 20 corporations
in the United States.
"They are salivating at getting
into the Ohio market, which is 11 million people, said state Sen. Jim Jordan,
a Republican from Urbana, whose district includes Botkins, a village 75 miles northwest of
Columbus. "Its halfway between (casinos in) Detroit and the
riverboats in southern Indiana near Cincinnati.
Even if video slots are not approved by
Ohio voters, developers for an unidentified Indian tribe say they will build a
100,000-square-foot bingo hall with a luxury hotel, restaurants, movies, spas, water park,
cultural center, golf course and shopping. Current Ohio law would allow a bingo-centered
Nationally, some gaming resorts have
come under fire for benefiting just a few Indians or doling out profits to mostly
non-Indian investors. At the same time, the federal agency that regulates tribal gambling,
the National Indian Gaming Commission, has been blasted for ineffectiveness.
Those trying to bring Indian gambling to
Ohio including a veteran Columbus political consultant are notably publicity
shy. Farm owners who have dealt with them relate tales of intrigue: secret meetings,
shadowy investors, public officials who could reap a windfall, confidentiality agreements
and the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars if they sign over their land.
Shelby County Recorder Janet Becker said
farmland in the area typically sells for $3,000 to $4,000 an acre. The price for
Maurers farm amounts to almost $25,000 an acre, although neighbors have been offered
For example, an anonymous group of Ohio
investors known as GPG Land has offered to buy an 82-acre plot from James and Jane Pohlman
of Sidney for $742,000, or a little more than $9,000 an acre. The offer, transferred by
the village to the holding company formed in April, expires next week.
A village councilman and township
trustee each own property that borders the gambling-resort site.
Maurer and others say they had no idea a
casino might be planned for their land. Their deal was with the village of Botkins for an
unspecified economic development project; village leaders said they could not tell them
more because of confidentiality agreements.
Village Solicitor Stan Evans said he
could not discuss details of the project, including purchase offers. "Im aware
of the claim by property owners. I know what theyre saying. Thats about all I
have to say about it.
Maurer said she wouldnt have
agreed to sell the fourth-generation family farm had she known it was destined to become a
"Im not for
gambling, she said. "My grandparents would not want their property sold
for gambling. I dont think God is for gambling.
The cluster of farms near the 1,205-person village is just one of three
sites totaling more than 800 acres in westcentral Ohio being eyed by Shawnee tribes from
Oklahoma and Ohio. The others are near Urbana, 40 miles west of Columbus, and Waynesville,
northeast of Cincinnati. Less-definite talk surrounds locales in Sandusky and the Mahoning
The Shawnee frequented much of southern
and western Ohio before most were driven from the area after the Battle of Fallen Timbers
in 1794. A confederation of tribes led by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was thwarted at the
Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.
A leader of the Shawnee tribe recognized
by the state of Ohio is upset that an Oklahoma tribe which already operates
gambling facilities in its home state apparently wants to buy its way back into the
"Those (land) prices are
unbelievably over market price, said Hawk Pope of Middletown, principal chief
of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band.
"Why dont they want it where
they live? Pope asked. "I think they ought to stay where they
Oklahoma tribes also have gaming
proposals on the table in Missouri, upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
While they havent been recognized
by Ohio, the Oklahoma tribe already has achieved the more significant federal recognition
as a tribe, which allows members to operate gambling facilities.
About 270 tribes are licensed to operate
casinos and bingo halls in 29 states. The Indian gaming facilities nearest to Ohio are run
by nine tribes in Michigan.
Pope said his tribe which
operates Zane Shawnee Caverns, Southwind Park and a newly expanded museum in Bellefontaine
has applied to the attorney generals office for permission to run a bingo
hall, but not a casino, in an existing community center on 140 acres southeast of Urbana.
"Weve got the land, the
building, the roads, the parking, Pope said. "We dont have the
federal recognition, but of course, the guys down in Waynesville dont
William LeMay of Waynesville a
dry town best known for its antique shops has offered to sell 386 acres of his
486-acre farm to an entertainment developer for an estimated $7.7 million. LeMays
attorney declined to name the developer or tribe.
But Waynesville Mayor Ernie Lawson said
he will fight any proposal that brings gambling and liquor sales.
"Im still taking it
seriously, Lawson said. "With the kind of money thats involved, a
mayor of a village is not going to stop that.
Opening the door
The developers interested in building a gambling resort in Ohio,
National Capital I of Beverly Hills, Calif., have hired Paul Steelman Design Group of Las
Vegas as their architect and Terry L. Casey, former executive director of the Franklin
County Republican Party, as their spokesman.
A bingo-centered facility alone will
create 600 jobs and add substantial dollars to local tax coffers, Casey said. Federal and
state taxes would be subject to negotiation on Indian-owned property, he said.
Some states have made agreements with
tribes to get as much as one-fourth of the revenue, but no such arrangements have been
publicly discussed in Ohio.
Casey and Botkins contractor Tom
Schnippel said the complex could be similar to Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, Mich.;
Green Valley Ranch in Nevada; Harrahs Rincon Casino near San Diego; and the Hyatt
Black Hawk Casino in Colorado.
"The detailed plans, though not
made public yet, are really exciting and innovative, Casey said.
"Ive seen them and they are very, very impressive.
"Whether its Vegas, the
Soaring Eagle in Michigan or looking at it in Botkins, people like getaways. We want to
make this a destination for Mary and Joe Midway.
David P. Zanotti, president of the Ohio
Roundtable, a conservative group that opposes all forms of gambling, long ago predicted
that American Indian casinos would eventually crop up here. Now a souring economy and the
slots proposal are helping plow the way.
"Theres absolutely no
question that there is a way for tribes to open casinos in Ohio, he said.
State lawmakers are ignoring this
possibility at their own peril, he said.
"It is the hottest end of the gambling business. They
(legislators) are pretending its not there.
Zanotti said the Botkins and Waynesville
proposals could be smokescreens. If electronic slots are approved by voters in November,
he said, Indian gambling interests will move into heavy tourist areas such as Sandusky,
near Cedar Point, and next to Kings Island near Cincinnati and maybe even
"Casino gambling is like running
water. It will find a way into everything once it gets going.
Families , community divided
On the Botkins village line, a welcome sign reads: "Where the Waters Divide and the
People Unite. But local gambling opponents say the entertainment proposal will
break up family farms and divide families. The village has until early October to exercise
its option to buy Marilyn Maurers farm. "No amount of money is worth having
trouble in the family, she said. "Ive got family very much against
this. Her parents and brother, Carl, live less than a mile away but not
within the proposed development site. Maurers sister-in-law, Judith Kempfer, is dead
set against the gambling facility. "Its morally wrong. That farm has been in
the family a hundred years, she said. "One of the things that hurt the
people is the lies and deceit. Something that elaborate ought to be brought to the voters
and the community. It has torn this community apart. It will never be the
same. Neither will her family, Kempfer said, choking back tears. "This
poor family, which was pretty gosh-darn close, is no longer.
Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland contributed
to this story .